When Presidents Trump and Putin met in Helsinki on 16 July, they understood each other perfectly. What they agreed will have global implications.
An ostentation of peacocks
When President Trump met his Russian counterpart in Helsinki on 16 July, they spent more than two hours alone together, accompanied only by their personal interpreters. Another two hours was spent with senior officials present. Then came the infamous news conference.
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So, before we go any further, no one knows exactly what the two presidents said to each other except the four people who were in that room. Therefore, much of what has been reported about their discussion is reasoned conjecture. (Of course, it is quite possible that the CIA, about whom Mr Trump has been so disobliging, was listening in, against Mr Trump’s wishes.)
But we do know quite a lot about how Messrs Trump and Putin see the world based on tangible evidence of what both gentlemen have publicly said and done. And it seems that both of these unlikely bedfellows see the world in similar terms. Naturally, both presidents want to advance their countries’ strategic interests – and neither is too concerned about the consequences for others.
Mr Trump admires Mr Putin because he sees in him a canny strongman who has played a weak hand very well in the 18 years that he has held the reins. When Mr Putin came to power on 01 January 2000, after eight years of Mr Yeltsin’s chaotic rule, Russia was a greatly diminished power. Now, Russia struts the world stage with confidence – even though its economic performance has been feeble. But Russia controls a massive Eurasian landmass and sits on huge quantities of the globe’s natural resources. Its people are highly educated and resourceful, and a few of them are exceedingly rich. Mr Trump is keen on billionaires and, unofficially, Vladimir Putin is a billionaire par excellence.
Mr Putin admires Mr Trump because he regards him as one of his own. At last, here is a US leader who is not the prisoner of some politically correct delusion about American moral righteousness. Here is a man (thank God, not a woman) who thinks strategically and long-term (like the Russians do) without becoming side-tracked by the minutiae of identity politics. (Such as transgender bathroom rights – the main policy obsession at the close of the Obama administration.) Mr Putin regards Mr Trump, as Mrs Thatcher said about Mr Gorbachev on meeting him in 1984, as a man we can do business with.
Mr Putin regards Mr Trump, as Mrs Thatcher said about Mr Gorbachev on meeting him in 1984, as ‘a man we can do business with’.
And they are both peacocks – though of differently patterned plumage. Mr Trump is quite clearly, in psychological terms, a narcissist with an outrageously optimistic evaluation of his own abilities. He really does believe that he is a genius – and one whose charms women cannot resist. Mr Putin is a darker plumed kind of peacock who rides horses in Siberia bare-chested and swims 20 lengths of his private Olympic pool each morning. He is a chess grand master with a crocodile smile. Nobody crosses him.
They both have gargantuan egos. If they were made for each other, the question arises – far more interesting than the question about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election (they interfere in everybody’s elections) – of how well Messrs Trump and Putin knew each other before 2016.
Since I don’t have access to intelligence files (and even if I did I would not share their contents with my esteemed readers) I can only go on what has been reported in the media. There are numerous unconfirmed reports that Mr Trump met Mr Putin in Moscow in 2013 when he was there for the Miss World pageant[i]. On one occasion, before becoming a presidential hopeful, Mr Trump reportedly said about President Putin: “I got to know him very well”. Later, during the campaign, Mr Trump said “I have no relationship with him”; and then: “I never met Putin – I don’t know who Putin is”.
The main focus of the press conference in Helsinki post-summit was the issue of Russian meddling in the US election. During the exchange with the merchants of fake news (as Mr Trump sees them) he notoriously said, “Why would they [meddle]?”, when, as he claimed back in Washington, he really meant “Why wouldn’t they [meddle]?”
If this is funny peculiar (and somewhat funny ha-ha) the real point is that the Russian meddling issue was a sideshow to the Trump-Putin summit. The US regularly interferes in democratic elections in other countries – even those of friends. US meddling in Russia’s presidential election of 1996 probably secured Boris Yeltsin’s re-election (he was considered harmless). Russian intelligence has since sought to mimic the CIA – but then, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
No, the real point about that press conference is that the two presidents had obviously cut a deal. And it looks like Mr Putin is going to Washington this autumn or next year, despite Democratic opposition, to sign it.
The art of the dealsky
The Americans and the Russians, supported by Israel, have forged a deal to end the Syrian civil war once and for all. At least this is John R Bradley’s hypothesis, writing in last week’s Spectator[ii], though regular readers will know that I suggested four months ago that this was on the cards.
By the terms of this deal, America – and therefore its NATO allies – will abandon its ill-considered demand that, whatever happens in that benighted country, President Bashar Al-Assad must go. The Obama-Cameron-Hollande triumvirate had foolishly set this as a red-line back in 2012 in the early stages of a pernicious conflict which they did not understand.
Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war, as readers will recall, from 2015 onwards, using massive air power to shore up the regime of the incumbent president. The West’s policy has always been confused and confusing in so far as they demanded that Al-Assad must go without supporting a viable alternative regime. (There isn’t one.)
While it is true that Israel and Baathist Syria are sworn enemies who have officially been in a state of war since 1948, the America-Russia deal has been brokered substantially by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister since 2009. He appointed himself Foreign Minister in 2015, by the way. Significantly, Mr Netanyahu has visited Mr Putin in Moscow about nine times over the last twelve months.
Israel’s integrity and security is as fundamental a part of American foreign policy as it has ever been under Mr Trump.
Mr Trump is a passionate supporter of Israel. His influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is Jewish, and his number one daughter, Ivanka, converted to Judaism when she married Mr Kushner. Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu communicate regularly. Israel’s integrity and security is as fundamental a part of American foreign policy as it has ever been under Mr Trump.
But, by tilting its favour towards the up-till-now reviled Al-Assad, Mr Trump will demand that the Syrian government take a less hostile line against Israel. This shift has been made possible by a fundamental realignment in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are part) have ceased their relentless hostility towards Israel. Travel restrictions have been eased and Israeli diplomats have recently been interviewed on Saudi news – something that would have been inconceivable even two years ago.
How has this come about? Firstly, the Yemeni civil war – just as ghastly as Syria’s in terms of human suffering – has pitched the Gulf States (less Qatar) against Iran. On the basis that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, Saudi Arabia has found reason to deal with Israel. Secondly, the accession to power of Prince Mohammed bin Sultan (“MBS”), who is determined to reform Saudi Arabia root and branch, has facilitated a policy reversal. (This will involve restraining the Wahhabi clerical establishment.) After MBS imprisoned much of his extended family in a luxury hotel for several months, everyone knew who was in charge. Incidentally, Jared Kushner is reported to be on very close terms with MBS, having spent at least one long weekend as his guest.
In June, the Trump administration quietly abandoned the US-supported Islamic rebels in South Western Syria, where the civil war originally flared up in January 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring. One of the reasons that the West got this conflict so terribly wrong is that the mainstream media characterised the Arab Spring as a democratic movement. The BBC even compared it to the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact it was nothing of the sort.
The Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria was largely an uprising of opportunist Islamic fundamentalists with grievances against the mostly secular and sectarian regimes that had ruled them.
Yes, corruption was rife throughout officialdom in Egypt and Syria; and yes, there were secret police. But there are degrees of tyranny. An ex-colleague of mine at the World Bank told me that, before the war, one could see gay men walking through the square in Aleppo openly holding hands. When the Islamic State briefly took control of part of the city, gays were hurled from rooftops. The liberation of Aleppo was accomplished with Russian military muscle, not Western.
Mr Bradley believes that Mr Trump is eager to withdraw the 2,000 or so US Special Forces still based in Syria and to leave the country as a de facto Russian protectorate. That is consistent with Mr Trump’s known view that America should not get bogged down in s***holes. He believes that America has been too eager to get involved in internecine local conflicts from which it is difficult to escape, resulting in the massive loss of American blood and treasure for little tangible gain. His opposition to the Iraq adventure of 2003-10 was unwavering.
A key part of the deal will likely be that Hezbollah, an extremely unpleasant anti-Semitic terrorist organisation sponsored by the Iranians, will be kicked out of Syria by a rejuvenated Assad government. They will probably retreat to their lairs in Lebanon and Gaza.
If Syria is a harmless Russian protectorate, what have the Israelis got to worry about? After all, about one third of Israeli citizens are Russian-speakers, many of whom were born in Mother Russia. And some of the greatest Russian chess grand masters have been of Jewish heritage.
Mr Trump divides humanity – and its leaders – into winners and losers. Messrs Putin and Erdoğan are winners; Mrs May, he has concluded, is a loser.
John Bolton, Mr Trump’s National Security Advisor, announced this month that President Assad’s survival in power is no longer a strategic issue for the USA. Just a few short months ago, in April, President Assad stood accused of being the criminal behind the chemical weapons attacks in a suburb of Damascus – which provoked an American missile attack. Now he is high and dry.
In years to come the credit for wiping out the appalling Islamic State will go to Mr Putin and to Mr Assad. The West will be remembered for its moralistic fulmination (plus, it is true, a very pro-active US military intervention in Mosul, Iraq last year). In Europe, politicians still think that they can solve strategic threats with moralistic rhetoric rather than by military might – which has been sacrificed to financing welfare.
Russia, meanwhile, has not only got to keep an excellent warm-water naval base in the Mediterranean at Tartus, but it has also manged to win over Turkey as an ally. Nearly three years ago, in November 2015, Turkey and Russia stood on the brink of war after the Turks shot down a Russian fighter jet which (they claimed) had penetrated Turkish airspace. Now, they are the best of friends.
President Trump also conspicuously fist-bumped Turkey’s President Erdoğan at the NATO summit on 11 July. In the age of strongmen, power talks unto power. Mr Trump divides humanity – and its leaders – into winners and losers. Messrs Putin and Erdoğan are winners; Mrs May, he has concluded, is a loser.
Revealed: Mr Trump’s real goals in North Korea
North Korea came up during the Trump-Putin confabulation – Mr Trump told us so. We still don’t know exactly what passed between Mr Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, when they met at the other historic summit in Singapore on 12 June. What we do know is that Mr Trump has used a judicious mixture of stick and now carrot in dealing with the North Korean regime. First, there was the threat of annihilation; then there was a promise of economic aid. What is Mr Trump trying to achieve?
The key to understanding why Mr Trump is determined to bring North Korea in from the outer darkness of global affairs can be summarised in three words. Rare earth elements. These are a group of 17 essential elements such as scandium and yttrium which are used inter alia in the production of electronic components used in smartphones, lithium batteries and so forth.
Of course, not much is known about the world’s most secretive economy – but geologists are pretty sure that precious rare earth metals reside below the surfaces of Hamgyeong-do and Jagang-do provinces (near the frontiers with China and Russia). The Americans have been exercised in recent years that China has built up a near-monopoly in rare earth elements, making America vulnerable to their cutting off supplies.
Moreover, North Korea’s economy is woefully under-developed, being valued at one twentieth of South Korea’s. Currently, North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world with a GDP-per-capita of around $1,700 in 2015, and falling – about the same as the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. The common people have experienced numerous famines in recent years. It seems that most North Korean workers do not receive wages but work as bonded labour in exchange for goods in kind – paltry food and shelter. The contrast between the market-oriented South and the totalitarian North could not be starker.
Mr Trump thinks Mr Kim can be bought off by a judicious combination of carrots with dollar signs and sticks in the form of continued sanctions.
What Mr Trump wants to do is to break the mould and to put North Korea on the path to stable economic development – not by regime change, but rather by opening the country to American (and South Korean) investment. When Mr Trump looks at photographs of the country’s pristine beaches, what he sees in his mind’s eye is a row of gleaming high-rise condos with manicured golf courses behind them. He knows that the Kim dynasty and the political elite which are invested in it are not going to commit suicide and hand the country over to the South. Kim’s regime, as the writer Ben Macintyre recently explained, has the characteristics of a weird religious cult[iii].
But everyone has a price. Mr Trump thinks Mr Kim can be bought off by a judicious combination of carrots with dollar signs and sticks in the form of continued sanctions.
Re-integrating North Korea into the world economy after seventy years of autarky and isolation would be a mammoth and lengthy task. It would require a new educational system and new infrastructure – things that South Korea is well-placed to provide. And there are signs that Kim Jong-un has been studying the Chinese economic development model. Clearly, China’s President Xi wants North Korea to follow the Chinese paradigm.
If sanctions could be lifted, then North Korea could begin to generate dollar revenues from exports of rare earth elements rapidly. Since the Trump-Kim summit, at which the North Koreans declared a commitment to denuclearisation, there have been both reports that the North Koreans were pressing ahead with their nuclear weapons programme[iv], as well as reports that they have destroyed a nuclear test site. Over 05-07 July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang to meet with his North Korean counterpart. Mr Pompeo characterised the talks as productive – but the North Korean Foreign Ministry released a statement after the visit describing the US proposals as “unilateral and robber-like denuclearization demands”.
So it is by no means clear that Mr Trump can get a deal with Mr Kim’s exotic tyranny, though he clearly thinks it is worth the risk of trying. Any kind of lasting agreement would pull North Korea out of China’s orbit and could put the country on another trajectory. The thinking is that, once the country opens up even slightly, the inexorable trend will be towards more cooperation between North and South. South Korea might just end up absorbing North Korea one day, just as West Germany absorbed East Germany in 1990. And a united Korea (we are allowed to dream) would be a formidable entity.
But for any such progress to happen, Mr Trump needs Mr Putin on-side. Russia has a narrow border with North Korea, and there are plans to upgrade the railway line between the two countries on which North Korea is highly dependent. Mr Putin will not mind if America gets some North Korean rare earth metals – just so long as Russia gets a slice of the action.
The Crimean question
German Chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck (1815-98) famously said that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. Mr Trump might well say that Crimea, a fertile peninsula in the Black Sea, which has been controlled by Russia since 1783, is not worth a single USAF body-bag. It really doesn’t matter to America whether it is owned by a nationalist-populist Ukraine with a grievance against Russia, or by Mr Putin’s Russia.
I’m not going to get into an argument about Russia’s claim to Ukraine here (though, may I say, it was part of the Russian SSFR until Khrushchev transferred it to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954). But let’s note that Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol is strategically vital to Russian security interests. The fear that a Russo-phobic Ukrainian parliament was going to stymie the renewal of the lease on the Sevastopol naval base was enough to send the Russians into a spin.
Mr Trump regrets the sanctions regime that was imposed on Russia by the Obama-Cameron-Hollande triumvirate in 2014. It has served little purpose and has probably harmed the West more than Russia. He thinks that it is time to draw a line under this minor revision of borders in a far-off land.
The Treaty of Washington, 2019 (?)
It is doubtful that all the pieces of the jigsaw will be in place by the time that Mr Putin visits Washington in the autumn – which is now unlikely. On 19 July Mr Trump tweeted that he had invited Mr Putin to visit the White House – though, apparently, Mr Pompeo was confounded. As I write, CNN is reporting that the visit will not happen this year[v]. But we can be sure that given a more compliant Congress – especially if the November mid-term elections go well for Mr Trump, as current opinion polls suggest they will – Mr Putin will strut down Pennsylvania Avenue sometime next year.
The Trump-Putin Treaty will perpetuate President Assad’s survival, Israel’s security and Crimea’s future. Mr Putin will congratulate Mr Trump for bringing about peace in both Syria and the Korean peninsula. Mr Trump will congratulate Mr Putin on his steadfast leadership. Sanctions against Russia will be trashed. The Moscow market, currently much undervalued, will soar – as will that in Seoul.
Having tickled the Russian bear, Mr Trump will then concentrate on his real mission: the containment of China.
[ii]The rehabilitation of Assad, John R Bradley, The Spectator, 21 July 2018, page 10.
[iii]See: Kim’s Korea is a giant religious cult, The Times, 16 June 2018. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/kim-jong-un-s-north-korea-is-a-giant-religious-cult-dxjgnvt3k